Lord Rothschild has described the Balfour Declaration, which was addressed to his great uncle 100 years ago, as “one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of the Jewish people”.
The peer, a member of the famous banking family, described the landmark document, which expressed Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, as a “miracle” brought about by “an incredible piece of opportunism”.
Lord Rothschild made the remarks in an interview with Daniel Taub, the former Israeli Ambassador to the UK, to mark the centenary year of the Declaration, which was signed by Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, in November 1917, and sent to the the second Baron Rothschild.
Lord Rothschild said: “You think ‘how did this miracle happen?’ You had an impoverished would-be scientist, Chaim Weizmann, who somehow gets to England, meets a few people, including members of my family, and seduces them – he had such great charm and conviction.
“He gets to Balfour, and he unbelievably persuades Balfour, and Lloyd-George, the Prime Minister, and most of the Ministers, that this idea, of a national home for Jews should be allowed to take place. I mean, it’s so unlikely.
“This is perhaps the greatest event in Jewish life for thousands of years, and it’s a miracle that it took place.”
Lord Rothschild did point out, however, that the family was divided in its views on Zionism, with some who “felt it was better to be assimilated into English life, and although they retained their interest in Judaism and Jewish life, they didn’t think it was a good thing that this national home should be established in Israel.”
However, James de Rothschild, the son of Baron Edmond de Rothschild from the French branch of the banking family, was an ardent Zionist, as was his young wife, Dorothy.
“She worshipped her husband,” said Lord Rothschild.
“I think it was due to him that she became interested. But once she became interested, she became passionately interested.
“And you can read the letters from her to Weizmann and Weizmann to her when she was only seventeen, and what she did, which was crucially important, was to connect up Weizmann with the British establishment.”
Although Lord Rothschild described himself as “completely committed to Israel since the early 1960’s”, he said he did not feel any conflict between that commitment and what he said was “huge loyalty to Great Britain.”
He also discussed in detail the work of Yad Hanadiv, the Rothschild philanthropic foundation in Israel. As well as being “on the point of building the new national library of Israel,” he said, the foundation does “a great deal of work on education.”
“If you take the Orthodox community,” he said, “it’s important that they have employment. We’re trying to develop programmes by which it’s possible for them to undertake.
“Similarly you have a problem with Arab unemployment, and we’ve set up, jointly with the government, employment centres to facilitate greater employment of Arabs within Israel. So we’re an active foundation trying to help with these fissures in Israeli life and to do some good.
Asked by the former ambassador on his hopes for Israel’s next 100 years, Lord Rothschild highlighted “hopes for a peaceful relationship with Israel’s neighbours, and that’s going to be the most difficult matter of all to achieve.”
“But even now you can see, with the relationships that Israel is developing, not only with Jordan, but with Egypt and indeed with Saudi Arabia, there’s hope.
“And I think if you take the needs of Arab nations to have intelligence help, and if on the other hand you take the compassion and generosity coming from Israel to Palestinian territories and its less fortunate neighbours, I think there are grounds for optimism, and I am an optimist,” he said.